NASCAR heads to the desert Southwest for their second trip to Phoenix International Raceway this weekend, as the Chase for the Nextel Cup has winnowed down to merely a two-horse race. While six drivers are still mathematically alive, just Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon remain with a realistic chance to take home the trophy come Nov. 18. Hopefully, your team’s in the same boat as those two, battling hard for a title after 34 races filled with your fair share of ups and downs.
Or maybe you find yourself grouped with the rest of the drivers, who are going for the weekly one-hit wonder – a win… and nothing else. With so little on the line for the majority of the field, Phoenix poses the potential for some serious beating and banging, with more than a few dustups along the way to the checkered flag. The desert heat and the setting sun will certainly only add to the already hot temperatures inside the cars.
With time running short, can your fantasy team survive this November firestorm? Read on to discover how to work through the heat and humidity of the Arizona desert, learning who to start and who to sit in this week’s edition of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Kevin Harvick completed the Phoenix sweep with his dominating performance in the Checker Auto Parts 500k. Harvick, who started second in the race, led 252 of 312 laps last November en route to his fifth victory of the 2006 season. But the win didn’t come as easy as it looked on paper; the race was red flagged when Jeff Green crashed with a handful of laps to go, forcing the No. 29 team to endure the stress of a green/white/checkered finish.
With points leader Johnson right behind, Harvick was under pressure; but in the end, he held his position to keep his minimal Chase hopes alive one final week. Johnson’s second-place run still proved good enough to extend his point lead to 63 over Matt Kenseth; he finished a distant 13th. Denny Hamlin, Gordon and Carl Edwards rounded out the top-five finishers.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Phoenix is sometimes called a short track on steroids. It’s a 1-mile tri-oval, with two tight turns (1 and 2) to go along with two sweeping ones (3 and 4). In between, there is a bend in the backstretch that can be critical for setting the car up for turns 3 and 4. The oddly-shaped facility has 11 degrees of banking in turns 1 and 2, compared to only nine degrees on the backstretch and throughout turns 3 and 4.
Those different angles mean Phoenix is all about compromise; with virtually no way to make the car handle well at both ends of the track, you’ve got to strike a healthy balance with what you got. Generally, the teams will try to make 3 and 4 the better end of the track, so that they can take the greatest advantage of the passing opportunity when they get back around to turn 1.
With this being the final Car of Tomorrow race of the season, look for the teams that have shown well in the previous CoT races to be strong all over again. As in the spring, the Hendrick and Gibbs teams will run near the front, followed closely by DEI.
Crank ‘Em Up
Johnson is on fire. He’s got the points lead, he’s won three races in a row and he’s heading to a track where he is second in average finish only to his teammate and championship nemesis Gordon. Johnson has raced at Phoenix eight times throughout his career – and he’s finished no worse than 15th in any of those starts. Six of those eight races, he’s finished in the top 10, and in the last two he’s wound up second and fourth. With destiny in his hands, look for Johnson to put even more of a stranglehold on the championship this weekend by finishing in the top-three places at Phoenix; with a very good shot at a win to boot.
Hamlin once again visited the Greg Biffle fountain of luck this past weekend, knocking himself out of the race while battling for the lead. One of these weeks, though, that luck has to turn around… and Phoenix could be a very good place for that to happen. Hamlin was third in the spring race this April, and he has an average finish of 13.3 at this track; that includes consecutive third-place runs in the last two races held here. Don’t forget that Gibbs has been a strong organization in general at CoT races, too; so Hamlin should have the horse for the course and be up front when the checkered flag falls.
Sit ‘Em Down
Jamie McMurray actually finished in the top 10 last weekend at Texas. Unfortunately for him, history shows there won’t be a repeat on Sunday; he has not had back-to-back top 10s since that very same Texas track in the spring. With only two such finishes since his Daytona win – he’s had more finishes in the 30s than in the top 15 – it is a very good bet that McMurray’ll be in the bottom half of the field again this weekend at Phoenix.
Reed Sorenson is still going through a sophomore slump, even though his freshman year wasn’t all that good. He has more finishes in the 40s than he does in the top 10 overall; and while his CoT production has been a little better over the last few races, his track record at Phoenix is not too impressive. It is best to keep Sorenson on the sidelines this weekend.
Roll the Dice
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two more chances to break his winless drought, keeping his streak alive of winning a race every year since he has run full-time in Nextel Cup. Well, Phoenix is definitely the better of the two tracks left on the schedule for Earnhardt, a place where he has actually won at twice throughout the course of his career. With DEI showing some strength in their CoT program over the second half of the season, expect Earnhardt to finally shake off bad luck and compete for the win this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up
After losing the point lead at Texas, Gordon needs to get in gear if he wants to win his fifth title – and fast. Waiting to make his big move at Homestead is just too risky; he needs a good finish this weekend at Phoenix in order to reestablish momentum. That shouldn’t be a problem, as Gordon goes for the season sweep of PIR, something Harvick accomplished last year. In fact, this track has a history of producing back-to-back winners, and with Gordon’s CoT prowess, history could repeat itself.
April was Gordon’s first win at Phoenix, but his average finish of 6.1 is tops in the series; he’ll need to better that to make a serious charge at Johnson for the title.
Barring some sort of freakish accident, Tony Stewart will be officially out of the Chase following Sunday’s race. But if Stewart can’t be the champion, we saw last year he loves to play the role of spoiler – and things are setting up well for him to wear that hat this weekend. In four of the last five races, Stewart has been dancing near or in the top 10; however, he hasn’t been able to pull off the late-season victory we’ve come to expect from him.
Stewart won his first time out at Phoenix in 1999, and hasn’t been back to victory lane since; but that’s not for a lack of trying. Only one time has he finished outside the top 30 here, and in the last four races he has three top-five finishes at PIR. Second to Gordon this April, look for Stewart to try and take that one final step on Sunday afternoon.
Sit ‘Em Down
Things have gotten pretty rocky for David Ragan as his rookie year winds to a close. In the last five races, he’s finished 26th or worse, and there isn’t much hope for that streak to improve this weekend. In his first – and only – appearance at PIR, Ragan finished a disappointing 41st, the lowlight in a CoT program that hasn’t been a particular strong point for the No. 6 team. Ragan has just two top-10 finishes this year, and it would be a big shock if number three came this weekend.
With three straight DNFs, there isn’t much of a weaker roll for a team to enter a race weekend on. But that’s what faces David Stremme as he heads to the Phoenix desert. After what began as a promising year, crashes in the last three events have the No. 40 team ending on a sour note. At PIR, things don’t look to get any better; Stremme finished dead last here in April, and his best finish in three starts is just 18th. The man may be a hot commodity on the Silly Season market… but he’s stone cold in the fantasy market this weekend.
Roll the Dice
What better way to celebrate your team’s move to a new facility than with a top-10 finish in the second to last race of the season? That’s what Bobby Labonte is hoping to do this weekend at Phoenix, and he has a good shot at pulling it off. In five of the last six races at PIR, Labonte has finished in the top 10, including an eighth-place finish here this spring. If you’re looking for a gamble that could pay off big, Labonte is a driver who can deliver.
Cami: I have to get this out of the way before you slam me for my Sit ‘Em picks… your favorite whipping boy Elliott Sadler almost got you a top-10 finish last week!
Mike: Yeah, yeah, yeah… a blind pig in an oak forest finds an acorn once in a while. I will admit, though, I am not going to beat him up this week, just as a reward. And I’ll still take his 12th-place finish over fourth and fifth, like your boys wound up with last weekend.
Cami: And don’t think that I’m not more than a bit ticked about that. I think I should get bonus points for picking people to sit that people might have actually thought of using. Granted, they would have been right to ignore me last week… but I tried.
Mike: Yes, I always give you credit for being more daring with your Sit ‘Em picks than I am – but that is probably why you are behind me in that category for the year. I will say that you are probably safer with your picks this week. I don’t think Stremme or Ragan are going to be running up front at the end; although Ragan may surprise you. He has been strong on CoT races a few times this year.
Cami: With my luck (and track record), you’re probably right. One of them might bring home a top 20… but that’s about it. In the meantime, I see you brought out an old fave in McMurray. Why? He was running pretty well last week, and got a top 10.
Mike: Yes, MAC ran well, but that has been a very rare instance this year. Add to that an average finish of 24.5 and no finish higher than 12th, and I feel pretty safe sitting the most overrated driver in the sport again this weekend. Meanwhile, I am curious to see if Wonder Boy can pay off for you. I admit he won the spring race, but they seem to have lost a valve spring on that well-oiled machine as they get to the end of the season.
Cami: I don’t think Gordon’s going to go down without a fight. They need to get it together quick before Homestead, and I just don’t see Johnson winning four in a row. This is Gordon’s week to make up some ground… but I see you think I’m wrong and took J.J.
Mike: I just don’t see how you can bet against that team right now. With his track record at Phoenix, I think the odds are pretty good that he’s going to be up front all day and have a real chance to win. I’d love to see that happen for your Roll pick, by the way.
Cami: I hope it works out, too! Bobby definitely has a good record at Phoenix, and he’s run well at times this year, even if his finishes don’t always show it. Finally, just two chances left for Junior to win at DEI – do you think he can shake the jinx?
Mike: I don’t know if he can or not, but I think this is the better of the two places for him to do it. He has really run well at Phoenix in recent years, and with DEI showing some pretty good strength in CoT races over the last half of the season, I think he has a better than average shot at a win. I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up – 13.9
Sit ‘Em Down – 21.4
Roll the Dice – 19.4
Crank ‘Em Up – 13.3
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.2
Roll the Dice – 17.9
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